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How to switch from novels to memoir (and vice versa)

If you’re considering switching from a novel to a memoir (or vice versa), what should you know before you begin? We asked five writers with published memoirs as well as novels for their expert advice.

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The issue of trauma in memoir

Memoirs often contain a heavy dose of trauma. For the reader, what’s the value of reading such pain and heartache? As a writer, how do you achieve the best emotional distance with respect to a given traumatic event?

As a reader, Roberge appreciates the traumatic in both fiction and memoir. He puts it this way: “If the writer isn’t ashamed or scared to put something in the book, if a writer isn’t wincing and squirming, they’re comfortable. And they write comfortable books. Which I really don’t have an interest in.”

But how does a memoirist achieve the right emotional distance? Naturally, the time of the traumatic event makes a difference. If it’s too close, it’s hard to gain any objectivity; if it’s too long ago, your memory can fail you. Yet Kohler’s current project, set in her deep past, is presently working for her: “I’m writing a book at the moment about adolescence and a traumatic event in my adolescence, which is quite a long way away, yet it is a time I remember quite clearly and vividly.”

One crucial question memoirists might face: how much trauma is too much?

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“This is truly a subjective decision, as much of literature is dark,” says Dickinson, stating that people have often found her own work “too painful” to read. One example she cites is her story collection Flashlight Girls Run: “Readers have told me they had to rest between stories. I write close to the too-much-trauma line, and so I’ve learned I must give readers resting moments.” She feels she accomplished this goal in her recently published Girl Behind the Door: A Memoir of Dementia and Delirium. In this work, she tried “to modulate between the pain of dementia and my mother’s eventual death with the beauty of the Iowa summer and my mother’s love for her children…The sun and blue sky have to shine through somewhere.” When your book includes “a litany of suffering,” says Dickinson, you should find ways to “allow your reader to take a deep breath.”

“Too often, memoir is seen as the literary container for the tragic, the sensationalistic, the look-at-what-happened-to-me,” says Kephart. Not that such tragic stories shouldn’t be told, she says, because “they are important; they are deeply valid; they remind all of us of what cannot happen again.”

Yet beyond the experiential impact of trauma itself, says Kephart, “memoir is a place to nest thoughtful considerations that spring not only from trauma but also from well-crafted contemplation.” With great memoirs, she says, “we can turn again and again to take solace from others, to learn from others, to deepen our empathy for others.” You must realize that “traumas are not ends in themselves,” or an opportunity for sensationalism, but rather a “place for reflection,” she says.

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Chace, too, warns against trauma as an end in itself. It shouldn’t “become a prurient sort of fascination for the reader” but instead “a means of developing greater emotional complexity in the characters, including the character of the narrator and even the book itself.”

 

Character arc in both memoir and fiction

How does the character arc work in a memoir compared to a novel? Structurally, are the two genres generally the same or different? Are there possible structural patterns common to both genres?

In terms of character arc, the two genres are “very similar,” says Kohler. One element often common to both is the element of change. “Change, if you can bring it off, is often very satisfying to the reader. After all, the basis of the fairy tale lies in this reversal: Cinderella marries the prince, and so does Jane Eyre marry Mr. Rochester, admittedly after he has been suitably wounded.”

For Dickinson, change is critical to both memoir and fiction, though the method of handling this element tends to vary with genre. “While plot can be manipulated more easily in fiction to sharpen the character’s descent or ascent,” she says, “memoir tends to hew more closely to what really happened.”

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Even so, says Dickinson, by the inclusion or exclusion of particular lived experiences, the memoirist is shaping the story – or developing the overall character arc. Memoirs involving drug addiction, says Dickinson, tend to follow a typical pattern: “the ‘I’s’ long fall into drug addiction, then the ‘I’ hitting bottom, which acts as the turning point and the road to eventual recovery. The trauma memoirs seem to generally follow that structure.”

According to Kephart, structure can vary considerably in both genres. “There are so many ways to approach a novel, so many ways that novel-making has been approached, and that is equally true for memoir. The memoir might be a straight-line narrative. It might be told in fragments or as collage, as a collection of linked essays, as prose poetry, as image plus shard.” As a writer, she finds these many options exciting. One does well not to be rule-bound, she says. “We learn the rules so that we can break them, in fiction and in memoir.”

“I’m not a big believer in three-, five-, and seven-act structures,” states Roberge. “Just story. And structure is as important as POV and everything else. Nothing is more important. Each piece dictates its own structure. I just have to write a while to find it so I can start over with the right structure. Form and function are never separate for me in the arts.”

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According to Chace, there are absolutely no rules for structure in either memoir or fiction. “The main difference, in terms of character arc in memoir, is to be careful not to make too many assumptions about what must be clear to the reader, simply because these characters’ journeys are so deeply familiar to you,” she says. When it comes to character, think like a fiction writer, she advises: “You have to think of every character in a memoir as a character, just as in fiction, including yourself, the narrator.”

When it comes to the character arc of a memoir, you should also think like a fiction writer, says Chace: Don’t feel compelled to “include an event simply because ‘it really happened.’” Again, think like a fiction writer: To the reader, the fact that something really happened is irrelevant if it does not aid the overall story. As in fiction, “memoir is an art of choosing which events will strengthen and clarify the emotional heart of the story you are compelled to write.”

 

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